Eighteen months and still no signs of slowing down.
Public Health Director Paul Pettit and his staff at the Genesee & Orleans Health Departments have worked tirelessly since February of 2020 to educate, test and vaccinate residents dealing with a COVID-19 pandemic that seemingly just won’t go away.
The Batavian spent about 15 minutes on the phone with Pettit this afternoon, picking his brain about the increase in cases, the Delta variant, community spread categories, face coverings, booster shots and natural immunity.
Q. With the number of cases increasing, do you plan to release information on a daily basis as was the case last year?
A. We’re discussing that; it is readily available as anybody can go to our website (www.gohealthny.org) and/or the dashboards to get all of the current data. We probably will be moving back to reporting at least once a week on the numbers.
We’re in the process of discussing that component of it. We have seen our numbers definitely pick up over the last eight to 10 days compared to where we were in July.
Q. When you talk about numbers, is it the same virus or is it the Delta variant? It seems like there is confusion over what people are coming down with now.
A. The reality is that every time you have a COVID test, there’s not a serotype done to see what strain of the virus it is. So, a lot of times we don’t have that level of detail. The state’s Wadsworth Lab in Albany does do that level of detail – they’ve been doing surveillance sampling of random samples from around the state and they’re also in the process of opening additional labs that will be able to do that. I believe the University of Rochester and one of the labs in Erie County are going to be able to do that.
It’s pretty much understood to be the Delta variant the way the cases are picking up. Samples that have been identified in the region are primarily Delta. It is presumed that it is the Delta strain by the way the numbers are picking up so quickly, but we don’t have the ability locally to analyze every sample.
Q. Do you think there will be some guidance out of Albany – either from the new governor coming in (Kathy Hochul) or from the New York State Department of Health?
A. We haven’t heard any updates on that beyond what the lieutenant governor commented on yesterday that she plans to meet with all of the cabinet members … ultimately it will be her decision on what direction they want to go with that.
(Since this interview, Hochul has announced that she wants students and staff to wear masks when school opens up next month. “My view is that people — children and everyone in the school environment — will be wearing masks,” Hochul said).
We’re going to continue locally to deal with cases through isolations and quarantines, and working in the community to keep the numbers down as best as we can.
Q. It seems like the categories that indicate the level of cases have changed. What are the actual categories now and how are they defined?
A. There’s low, moderate, substantial and high; four buckets basically that the CDC is using to essentially categorize community transmission of COVID. So, moderate is greater than 10 cases per 100,000 per week; substantial is greater or equal to 50 cases per 100,000 per week, and then high is greater than or equal to 100 cases per 100,000 per week.
From 10 to 50 is a pretty big jump, right, but then when you get to substantial, you have to double your weekly count of cases to get to high.
Q. Is it true that Genesee County currently is in the moderate range?
A. We have been in the moderate category but the numbers that we have seen over the past four to five days, averaging from seven to 10 cases per day, if those numbers continue over the seven-day period – which the CDC uses as their window – we’re definitely on the edge of potentially going to substantial.
Per the CDC guidelines, once an area is designated or classified by their chart as substantial spread, that’s when they would start to recommend that people consider masking indoors – vaccinated or unvaccinated – especially if you have certain underlying health conditions or are at high risk, so to speak.
It’s not a mandate – there are no local mandates – and, obviously, the state has not put out any mandates because the executive order/state of emergency has lapsed, but it is recommended due to the amount of spread that is occurring.
Q. How effective do you feel are the masks that people are wearing, especially considering the different types of materials the masks are made of?
A. We’ve talked about the mask question all along, from day one … we’ve heard that you should mask and that you shouldn’t mask from the federal side.
What we do know is that masks are effective in certain settings in reducing risk. People are not wearing, in most cases, N-95 – those are the gold standard masks in stopping viruses and bacteria, etc. But when it comes to what people are wearing in the community, you see many different types of masks.
Your medical surgical masks are probably the most effective outside of the N-95 because they are used in clinical, healthcare settings, and then you have cloth and buffs and all different kinds of barriers that people have created to try to meet the face covering requirements.
It’s a spectrum of how much protection they will provide depending upon the type of material of the masks. I will say that any type of barrier is going to provide some type of protection; depending on which one, more or less, and depending upon how it is worn. There are a lot of variables.
Is it foolproof, that if you wear a mask, you’re not going to get COVID? No. In the general setting, masks are a tool to try to reduce risk of getting the disease. The recommendation is that if you put it on, you’re protecting yourself and potentially others if you have COVID, and providing a layer of risk protection.
Q. Do you agree with Dr. Fauci that everyone will need a booster shot down the road?
A. The boosters are being studied on the federal level by the FDA (Food & Drug Administration), looking at the effectiveness of the current vaccines that we have out there. What we do know is that the vaccines are safe and effective; they’ve done a very good job of preventing illness and preventing disease in those who are fully vaccinated.
We have seen that there are some breakthrough cases occurring and the efficacy of all three vaccines is a little bit lower with the Delta variant than what it was with the original variant of COVID that we were dealing with since the beginning of the pandemic.
With that being said, they’re still very effective. Even with any of the breakthrough cases we are seeing, these folks have had very mild symptoms or asymptomatic, and none of them have gone to the hospital and none of them, obviously, have passed. We know the vaccines are working; they’re keeping people from getting sick. They may get COVID but they’re not getting sick.
As new variants come along, we need to give folks or encourage them to get a booster shot to match up better with the new strain and boost the antibodies and protection they may have. I think there will be a need for a booster shot at some point.
Q. What about people who have had COVID? Don’t they already have natural immunity, and do they need to be vaccinated?
A. Obviously, when you have a disease you develop natural antibodies, so there is some level of protection. But, again, what the data is showing is that those who have had COVID, their antibodies are not as high as they are when you get the vaccine. The recommendation still is that you get vaccinated even if you have had COVID.
The vaccine efficacy gives you better protection from re-infection than just having natural antibodies.